When Will It End?

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Two of them wore bandannas across their faces to hide their identity—they were the guerrilla commanders. The other six, were uncovered. They drove up together in nondescript, battered cars to the smartest address in Srinagar to begin the first formal peace talks between Kashmiri insurgents and the Indian government on ending the decade-old conflict in the disputed, divided territory. Last Thursday's meeting between representatives from the Hizb-ul-Mujahedin and the Indian government at Nehru House, an English-style cottage for VIPs on a picturesque grassy plateau, started a process fraught with uncertainty. Indeed, only 24 hours before the talks began, it seemed they would be aborted. Suspected guerrillas from rival Islamic groups based in Pakistan and opposed to the talks launched a wave of attacks on civilians across the Indian-held part of Kashmir, killing some 100 people. The heaviest casualties were among Hindu pilgrims waiting to start their climb to an icy mountain cave where they believe the god Shiva disclosed the secret of eternal life. Unidentified gunmen attacked the pilgrims as food was being served at their transit camp at Pahalgam, a resort town in the Himalayan foothills: 33 people were killed and 66, including the group's Muslim guides and porters, injured. Hours later, two groups of seasonal workers from other parts of India were ordered from their shelters near Anantnag, south of Srinagar, and shot dead. The scale of the carnage was so shocking—and so widely condemned internationally—that none of the 14 other guerrilla groups fighting to wrest Indian-held Kashmir from New Delhi took responsibility for the attacks. India put the blame firmly on one of the most militant jihad (holy war) groups, Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, made up mainly of foreign extremists, and its host, Pakistan. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said his government would not be intimidated by the violence and vowed he would not let slip the opportunity for peace. Pakistan denied all involvement, and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba said it did not target civilians. But it was clear that extremist groups would do their utmost to sabotage this latest peace drive in Kashmir. The first tentative discussions in Srinagar dealt with the terms of a ceasefire, announced unilaterally by Hizb-ul-Mujahedin leader Abdul Majeed Dar on July 24 to the dismay of his erstwhile guerrilla allies. He and his group were thrown out of the United Jihad Council, the loose coalition of militants in Pakistan fighting to unite Kashmir. The remaining groups vowed to continue the struggle. The ceasefire unleashed a whole new dynamic, says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of defense studies at Pakistan's Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. It may sharpen differences between hardliners and moderates in India, Pakistan and among the militants themselves.Hizb, one of the oldest militant Kashmiri groups, is supported by influential exiles in Britain, Canada and the U.S. Formed in 1989 at the start of the uprising in Indian-held Kashmir, the group initially favored accession to Pakistan. Today it includes some Kashmiri nationalists bent on establishing a separate nation. Hizb accounts for more than half the estimated 3,000 guerrillas fighting in Kashmir and comprises mostly native Kashmiris—as opposed to the Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs and other foreigners that make up the other militant groups. Hizb fighters have recently found themselves acting in secondary roles, as guides and interpreters for the richer, more unpredictable and ruthless foreign-backed insurgents. This may have contributed to the ceasefire offer.Hizb is not likely to have acted on its own initiative. It is widely assumed that the unilateral three-month ceasefire offer had the blessing of Islamabad. Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, is under pressure from the U.S. to end the state of tension over Kashmir. Nearly bankrupt, lacking access to international credit and diplomatically isolated, Pakistan needs the international backing that American patronage can bring. Even before President Clinton's visit to the region in March, the U.S. has been leaning on India and Pakistan to begin talks to normalize their relations and settle the 53-year-old dispute. India's most recent attempt to talk peace with Pakistan, after they separately conducted nuclear tests two years ago, was derailed when Islamabad secretly occupied territory around Kargil on India's side of the Line of Control (loc) that divides Kashmir. After the Pakistanis withdrew, the Indians refused all negotiations until Islamabad stopped supporting terrorists from crossing the loc. A month ago Pakistan silenced its guns along sensitive areas of the loc, opening fire only in retaliation. The artillery lull, seen as the good faith gesture Washington required, was brokered during a visit to Islamabad by U.S. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering in May. The decision was never made public for fear it would trigger anti-government protests from Pakistan's religious right. New Delhi has responded by seizing the gauntlet thrown down by Hizb, calling it a timely and bold initiative. The Indian Army suspended operations against the group (but not against other militant organizations). Several months earlier, New Delhi had set the ball rolling by releasing jailed Kashmiri leaders and offering talks with them. But there is still uncertainty over whether these peace moves will take off. After a visit to the massacre site at Pahalgam last week, Prime Minister Vajpayee called on all militant groups to join the ceasefire, but he ruled out the possibility of Pakistan immediately joining any talks. Hizb had set a deadline of Aug. 8 for Pakistan to join unconditional tripartite negotiations or it will end its ceasefire.What happens next is unclear. Vajpayee dismissed the possibility of a summit with Musharraf when both men are in the U.S. for next month's United Nations General Assembly session. The Pakistani leader keenly wants that meeting, as do the Americans. But India seems confident enough to take on Pakistan at its own pace. And to show its outrage over last week's massacres, it might keep Musharraf on edge for a while longer.—With reporting by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi, Yusuf Jameel/Srinagar, Douglas Waller/Washington